A stretch of Oregon farmland within 20 miles of Idaho’s border could be rezoned for residential development under a bill that critics say will undermine protections for agriculture.

Supporters of House Bill 2456 claim the proposal will cause more homes to be built within the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region instead of Idaho, where housing construction is flourishing.

There’s clearly a demand for the rural residential “good life” in the region that’s not being met in Oregon, even on properties that cannot be viably farmed or ranched, said Tiffany Cruickshank, a member of the regional board and transportation manager of the Snake River Produce Co.

Under HB 2456, however, protections for agricultural land would be maintained, Cruickshank said during a Feb. 7 legislative hearing. “We are not asking to be like Idaho.”

Development could not occur on high-value farmland or property that’s been used for agriculture within the past three years, while residential rezoning wouldn’t be allowed to significantly alter accepted farm or forestry practices on surrounding land, among other provisions.

Last year, 138 new homes became available in Idaho’s Payette County compared to 23 in neighboring Malheur County in Oregon, which is roughly 24 times larger, according to the regional board.

For businesses to locate in the area, their employees need places to live, which is currently a stumbling block, said Ralph Poole, a board member and co-owner of several local businesses.

Currently, some state government employees work in Oregon but must commute to homes in Idaho, he said.

Oregon’s land use restrictions have put the region at a housing disadvantage compared to Idaho, while HB 2456 would attract more residents and boost tax revenues, said Dan Joyce, the Malheur County judge.

Opponents of the proposal argued that provisions in HB 2456 aren’t sufficient to protect farmland.

Just because the current landowner hasn’t farmed a property doesn’t change its character or suitability for agriculture in the future, said Nathan Hovekamp, wildlife program director for the Central Oregon Landwatch conservation group.

The bill contains a provision that would provide tax credits of up to $5,000 to sellers of residential properties rezoned from “exclusive farm use” in the region, which would effectively force taxpayers to subsidize development, Hovekamp said.

While Central Oregon Landwatch is “not insensitive” to economic challenges in Eastern Oregon, there are already provisions in land use law to accommodate housing while HB 2456 would allow precious farmland to be sacrificed for development, he said.

Cattle ranching is a major agricultural use in Oregon and it doesn’t require top-quality soils, said Peggy Lynch, natural resources coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

The drilling of domestic wells that are exempt from groundwater rights permitting could also adversely affect irrigators, she said.

Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the organization opposes the bill, even though it was carefully crafted, because it leaves unanswered questions about long-term impacts on farm and rangeland.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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